10 great habits for English learners

There are certain English learning habits or practices you can develop that will make you a more effective and efficient English learner. In this English Learning Tips article, I’ll tell you about 10 important things you can do to become better, stronger, and faster as an English learner.

Have you heard of the 80/20 rule? If not, it says that 80 percent of your success comes from 20 percent of your effort. In other words, if you get a few important things right (the 20%) they will bring 80% of your results. This definitely applies to learning English.

All of these English learning habits require that you put in some time and energy before you see the payoff. That’s true for just about any useful skill that you want to learn.

For example , think about typing or keyboard skills. Touch typing is much faster than hunting and pecking with two fingers. But learning to type is hard in the beginning, and can be frustrating. You want to just go back to your old and inefficient way of typing with two fingers and looking at the keyboard. But if you stick with it and force yourself to learn proper technique, you will be typing much faster and easier for the rest of your life.

Case in point: my mom forced (well, at least strongly encouraged) me to take typing class in high school, and I hated it at the time. But now I’m super thankful that she made me do it because it saves me so much time.

Here are 10 habits or practices that fall into that same category for English learning. They are all things that seem boring or difficult or scary in the beginning. But that’s just in the short-term. In the long-term, in the grand scheme of things, the payoff is huge. If you do even a few of these things, you will be setting yourself up for much faster progress with your English learning, you’ll be getting much more bang for your English learning buck.

  1. Make English meaningful to you. Instead of saving the most important habit for last, I’m putting it first. If you do nothing else on this list, please just do this one thing. To be able to SPEAK better English, the hands-down, absolute best way to give yourself the kick in the butt you need to do the hard work that lies ahead is to have a genuine need, a true desire, to communicate in English about things that are important to you. There is nothing else more important than this. If communicating in English isn’t meaningful to you, there is no way you will be putting in the time, energy and effort that it takes to reach anything close to fluency.
  2. Find interesting input in English. English learning doesn’t have to be boring. Think of the things that you love to read, watch, or listen to in your own language, and then look for English versions of these things. First you might need to translate some key words from your own language so you can search in English. How to know if you found something good? If it’s something you’d be eager to read, watch, talk about or listen to in your own language, you’re golden. If not, then keep looking.
  3. Find a way to have meaningful interactions with real people in English. This will probably be easier to do online than in person, but of course, in person is best. (You don’t necessarily need to stick to language learning sites like italki or free4talk.com – even Facebook groups about things that interest you are a great way to learn English, ask questions, etc.) I have learned an incredible amount of my target languages just from joining Facebook groups that are about things I love.
  4. Take the time to thoughtfully fill in your online profiles on social media sites, forums, Language Exchange sites, etc. where you intend to interact in English with other people. Write a good description, and use a real photo of yourself. It’s much easier to find people to interact with if you have a good profile and look like you’re serious.
  5. Learn to use a review system for new vocabulary. An SRS, or “spaced repetition software” is most efficient. You need repetition over time for new language to really stick. Spaced repetition software helps you review on the best and fastest schedule for learning.
    If you take the time to put important things into your SRS, you can dramatically increase your vocabulary. A lot of people like Anki (it’s also what I use).
    Anki is kind of daunting to get started with, but if you spend a few hours just learning the basics, you will be set up with a great system for learning not just languages, but any kind of information that can be put into words, audio or an image. If you don’t want to use software, then just use your own system with flash cards and reminders on your phone. The important thing is to review and test yourself on a regular schedule.
  6. Learn phonetic symbols well enough to write them down — not just recognize them. This is especially important if you learn a lot of new vocabulary from reading. English is not a phonetic language, so you’ll need help to know how words are pronounced. If you learn phonetic symbols, you can note down the pronunciation of words in your vocabulary review system. There are many systems, IPA is just one, and there are differences for British and American English. Just pick the system that seems most useful to you and really learn it. It won’t take nearly as long as you think to learn them, and the payoff is huge.
    Learning the IPA symbols might be a great way to get started using an SRS. There is already a free Anki deck that covers IPA symbols for American English.
  7. RTFM (read the freaking manual). Take the time to really learn your favorite English learning tools, such as your dictionary, your grammar book, your SRS, even Google ). Do you understand what you find in dictionary entries? Do you know how to quickly make new cards in Anki? Do you know how to use Google to your best advantage for English learning? (The things Google can do these days are AMAZING). It’s worth spending a little time to really make sure you know and understand how to use the tools you have available for English learning. Take notes if needed.
  8. Learn to use a corpus for finding lots of authentic example sentences. If you don’t know what a corpus is, it’s just a gigantic bank of authentic English that is designed to be searchable. It’s a fantastic way to find real-life example sentences to see vocabulary and grammar.
    Don’t be put off by the complexity of the search at first sight. Corpora are designed for serious linguistic research, so they have loads of options for searching. But for language learning purposes you can get huge benefit just from the most basic search.
    A good way to get started using a corpus is https://www.english-corpora.org/ . It’s free, and they have a super-simple basic search that will give you loads of example sentences to look at. Try searching the Corpus of Contemporary American English for a fun word like shitstorm or kerfuffle, for example.
  9. Set up a way to do listen-and-repeat practice OUT LOUD with audio. Listening and repeating aloud is a great way to get your mouth used to making the sounds of English. I don’t care how you do it: just use your computer, your phone, whatever device you’re most likely to use for listening to English. It’s good if you have a player that lets you change the playback speed, and that lets you choose how far back you want to rewind. If your biggest problems are speaking and pronunciation, it’s important for you to practice.
    Think of it this way: listen-and-repeat practice is like doing workouts for your mouth, tongue and brain. You’re building your pronunciation muscles in your private language gym, and then you can show off those muscles when you talk to people in English in real life.
  10. Record yourself speaking English, and do it regularly. I know it feels awkward and embarrassing, and it can be quite a confrontation to hear yourself the way others hear you, rather than the way you hear yourself in your own mind. But recording yourself is a great way to see where you need to improve. Try a fun experiment: record yourself talking about a subject you like, then do the same thing again six months later and compare. If you’ve been getting regular practice, you should see a marked improvement.
  11. This last habit is to do with developing your mindset: Stop judging yourself and looking for signs of progress…focus on the process, the system, and just keep doing your English learning habits. The results will come. Progress will come.
    Stop asking yourself if you feel fluent. The more focus on changing some magical feeling of fluency, the more frustrated you are likely to become.
    Mastering a language takes time, and progress is not linear or obvious from day to day. You go long periods where it feels like you’re not improving, and then suddenly it’s like a level has been unlocked in a game and you realize you suddenly have a new superpower. And even native speakers feel frustrated with their language sometimes, when they can’t find a word or phrase, or when they feel they can’t express something as well as they would like to. So it’s natural to feel frustrated sometimes…it doesn’t mean that you’re not progressing.

Those were in no particular order, just the 10 things that seemed most important to me today when I sat down to think about this. The successful language learners that I know, the ones who seem to make the best progress, all of them do at least a few of these things. You definitely don’t have to to them all. Even just turning one or two of these English learning practices into regular habits for yourself can yield huge results.